The Nearness Of A Dictionary

Make space on your writing desk and leave a dictionary open on it.

I’m going to change the way you work with words and make you more writerly. Get your dictionary, clear space immediately adjacent to your desk, open the dictionary, and set it in that space. Your life will get better almost immediately.

Here’s my writing space with Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary open at the left.

my writing nook

Half the time I write here by hand on the paper stacked beside the dictionary. Other times I type on the Chromebook or a typewriter. (I’m an anachronism. Look that up.) However I’m writing, the dictionary is open to the page I last consulted. It’s too convenient not to use.

Doesn’t all the page turning and searching take time away from writing?

Yeah, it takes time away from the acts of tapping keys and pushing a pen, but this is good. Taking time away from writing for Facebook is bad. Taking time to find a word in my dictionary has me thinking of words, fills my head with other words on pages I flip past as I look up sanguine to see that it describes how we felt about the neighbor’s tree falling in our yard.

If you remember going to the record shop not just to buy the newest release but to flip through the albums from A all the way to Z, then you know the power of browsing. Inefficient searching leads to serendipity. Those brushes with other records suggested new music, surrounded me with new ideas. I still got to the album I had looked for, but I got much more than just one record.

Searching definitions on Google is wondrous and efficient. “Define sanguine” brings up the definition and a whole history of the word, almost like searching the OED except it’s too efficient. The search, performed in 0.40 seconds, results in the definition and history of that one word, but nothing more. Sanguine is the last word on page 1041 or my dictionary, a page beginning with sand, continuing through sandalwood, sandhi, sandjack, sangfroid, sanguinaria, and arriving at sanguine. Looking for page 1041, the heads of pages list saleroom, salt, and Samaritan. I’m thinking now about the Good Samaritan, an Slate article about salt in food, and wondering what the hell a saleroom is. None of that much relates to how I felt about the tree in our yard, it puts me in a word mood which is perfect for a writer’s work. All it took was placing a good dictionary open next to my desk.

Which dictionary doesn’t really matter. My choice wasn’t my choice. Mom got me this Webster’s for college, so that’s what I use. The choice of dictionary matters less than its proximity and my habits of using it.

Each word I look up gets a dot of ink next to it to see when next I will be on that page. It amuses me to notice a dot on the page and find a word I needed in another writing moment. I often reread the definition and savor the mystery of where I was and what I was doing when I last looked at the word. Occasionally, I look up a word that has a dot already, a word I’ve looked up but which has slipped a little in my mind. I reread, put a second dot, and leave the dictionary open to the page.

Leaving it open is key. A closed dictionary is likely to remain closed. Having it open where I can page through it so easily leads me to use it. Using it leads me to the habit of using it more which makes me more writerly. None of this is magic but it feels magical.

It is also slow and that turns out to be good for writing. Like the pen or typewriter, it returns me to the physicality of words. Physical things move more slowly than digital impulses through the ether. My dictionary is not virtual. It is present beside me and a part of my writing.

There’s probably a dictionary in your home. Maybe your Mom gave it to you or some professor required you buy the damn thing. Pull it down now.

If you lack a dictionary, they can be had cheap at a used book store, garage sale, or library book sale. Post on Facebook that you need one and someone will gladly give one to you. Just get one.

Now clear space immediately adjacent to your writing desk or table. Open the dictionary in that space. Look up sanguine, read the definition, and put a dot next to it. Tell me what page the word is on and what other words near it draw you in.

It’s going to change your life for the better, that open dictionary. I’m sure of it.